Hi! This is the first in a series of weekly posts where I expose some of the things I’ve been thinking and reading about over the past week. If you want to chat about any of it, drop me a line. My handle is divyahansg on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Gmail.

Table of Contents

Thoughts of the week

Minimizing my information-action ratio

“How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve? For most of us, news of the weather will sometimes have such consequences; for investors, news of the stock market; perhaps an occasional story about a crime will do it, if by chance the crime occurred near where you live or involved someone you know. But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.”

“This fact is the principal legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the “information-action ratio.”

(Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman)

Following the title of my blog, I decided to devote my first weekly review to discussing how I think about my own daily information-action ratio. Every day, I consume more information from web browsing and interacting with my peers than I can digest. That happens partly because we live in a world of infinite information and partly because I’m interested (to varying degrees) in a broad range of topics: computer science, politics, finance, literature, basketball, startups, art, and writing. I spend most days trying to make progress on a few threads of work related to those interests (i.e. side projects). Invariably, I end my day with at least 30 unopened tabs spread across 5 different windows: articles and blogs I find on Twitter, research papers, short stories, programming tutorials, or textbooks. Essentially, I finish with too much information and too little action, making for a very high information-action ratio. I let out a defeated sigh and I bookmark all my tabs to spare my RAM, knowing that I’ll probably never remember them. What causes me a great deal of latent stress is wondering whether they might ever be relevant to future threads of work or aspirations.

This winter break, I finally decided to do something about it by spending a few days imagining a better system to relieve that stress. The system would “save state” in each of my “work threads” and let me enrich them with content I find elsewhere. The system would make it easier for me to organize everything I learn, contextualize it, and turn it into action. In summary, I wanted Wikipedia and Trello to have a child and I wanted this child to live forever.

To that end, I looked for existing solutions online that were free and easy to export data from. After considering Evernote, Notion, Google Docs, and just vanilla vim info.txt, I decided that mdbook provided the best combination of customizability, simplicity, longevity, low switching cost, and familiarity for me. The project is an open-source clone of Gitbook, a documentation service that converts Markdown documents into HTML-based online books. I decided not to use Gitbook because it recently switched to a proprietary data format and became closed-source. Even though Gitbook’s legacy version is available open-source, it is written in Javascript, while mdbook is written in Rust, a language I’m more familiar with. It turns out that the official Rust Programming Language online book is on mdbook, so I have been indirectly aware it for quite some time already!

I partitioned my mdbook into three main parts, Threads, Storage, and Queue. Each of my “work threads” has its own page in Threads, which I use to track my progress, write notes, and embed relevant outside content. In Storage, I create a page for each topic about which I want to save articles, thoughts, ideas, or other information (e.g. Investing, Computer Vision, C++). Queue is a single page composed of topic sections, each of which has a list of unread articles about that topic. Every day, I pop a few links off my Queue, read them, and then move them to their proper pages in Storage, where I add some context around each link and/or connect it to information already in the pages. This process gives me more control over my daily information intake than I had before because I can asynchronously push content, easily choose what I want to consume, and reshuffle my priorities as I see fit.

The next step was to take all my backlogged content and start organizing it in my new system. I started with around 800 bookmarks on my laptop, 200 tabs on my iPhone, and 600 links in Pocket. Past 100 tabs, the Chrome iOS app actually stops counting how many tabs you have open and just displays a smiley face :). Once I had coalesced all of my links into one file, I took each link one-by-one and moved it to its proper Storage page if I had already read it or to its the proper Queue list if I hadn’t. After processing my first 50 links, I was exhausted.

This is going to take longer than I thought.

Since then, I’ve been slowly chipping away at my backlog. Yet, I already know that it’s worth the effort because I feel less scatter-brained, and ergo, less stressed. I’m now processing information without feeling overloaded and in a way that is productive for my interests. I’m confident my mdbook will help me find some strands of coherence in the incoherent world of information that Postman laments. One of the great things is that my mdbook gets more useful the more I feed it, so I’m excited to see what it looks like a year from now.

In today’s digital era, the ability to easily find information is arguably more powerful than the ability to recall it from memory. If so, having a reliable system that organizes everything you know is a great way to minimize your information-action ratio. If you’ve created a similar system for yourself, let me know – I’d love to hear about it!

Those are my thoughts of the week. Sanjay told me I won’t make it past two blog posts, so now I’m definitely going to do at least three.

NB: I push my mdbook to a private Github repo and hope to make parts of it public online.


Readings of the week

Delivery Drones Cheer Shoppers, Annoy Neighbors, Scare Dogs (Wall Street Journal)

Alphabet subsidiary Wing Inc. has recently started piloting drone deliveries in a Canberra, Australia neighborhood. I remember when Amazon created quite the stir when they released a teaser video of a similar concept, Prime Air, two years ago (and no news since). While this article is the first mention of Wing I’ve come across, I expect to see more in the future since they’re expanding quickly in Canberra and starting a pilot in Finland, too.

The biggest complaint of the pilot seems to be the noise pollution caused by the frequent flights the drones make over the neighborhoods, causing some residents to form the opposition group Bonython Against Drones, or B.A.D. I’m sympathetic to their concerns since the drones seem quite loud from what I can hear from the video (assuming the video captures it accurately). Looking into the future, however, when (not if) these drones are quiet enough and can carry sizeable payloads, a number of interesting questions open up.

  1. What does the ideal rooftop look like?

    Doorstop delivery is not very feasible in dense, urban markets. I imagine buildings will share a rooftop landing spot that will be operated by the mailroom.

  2. How do you protect food deliveries from birds?

  3. How would cities react to having a flock of drones blanketing the sky?

    Cities could take to action to minimize “sky pollution” by enforcing “zoning” laws in airspace.

  4. Is there an risk that the drones can be weaponized? Is that an outsized risk relative to other methods of harm?

  5. How resistant are they to common weather conditions (wind, rain, and snow)?

Ultimately, I think the efficacy of drone delivery ought to be measured in how many cars and trucks they can take off the road. Please let me know if you find any data that’s helpful in estimating this number.

Headspace vs. Calm: The Meditation Battle That’s Anything but Zen (Wall Street Journal)

Meditation is starting to enter mainstream and two apps, Headspace and Calm, are vying to be the digital leaders of it. I had never heard of either apps before my friend asked me to do some due dilligence, but I found the market to be pretty fascinating. Headspace seems like digital embodiement of its co-founder Andy Puddicombe, a British meditation expert and monk whose pre-recorded voice leads users through all of the app’s meditation sessions. While the founders of Calm do not have a prior background in meditation and all their sessions are narrated by their Head of Content, they do have awards from both the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Having raised more than double the funding of its competitor, Headspace appears to have invested significant resources into building a cohesive brand. They make heavy use of cartoons, which I find delightful because they are silly in a way that doesn’t ostracize adults. They remind me of Pixar movies like Monsters Inc. or Toy Story, which are aimed at children, yet equally enjoyable for adults. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the cartoon aesthetic becomes trendy in 2019. The fact that the other co-founder is a former marketing executive may help explain Headspace’s focus on branding. That focus had to be reined in last year, when marketing overspend and overhiring forced layoffs and its in-house brand agency to be shuttered. Since then, Headspace has shifted its marketing focus towards partnerships with employers, airlines, and professional sports leagues like the NBA. While these partnerships offer Headspace at a steep discount, I think they create valuable distribution channels that can reach a wide audience. Given how much funding they’ve raised, growth is more important than revenue for the time being, so I think their strategy makes sense. Calm has started following suit by inking deals with their own partners, but not with the same urgency. The anecdotal data I’ve collected from my peers suggests that both apps are effective meditation partners, so I am eager to see how they differentiate themselves moving forward. From my cursory research, a user’s choice of app is frequently decided simply by which voice they prefer.

Sleep therapy is a lucrative adjacent market that both companies are starting to explore. The apps could differentiate themselves in that arena by offering a personalized experience that combines qualitative meditation therapy with quantitative sleep health data. Because sleep problems arise from a wide range and combination of environmental and mental triggers, the therapy would need to be general enough to be relatable to a wide audience but specific enough to be useful. Both apps have found the perfect balance of the two extremes in their meditation offerings, so I’m cautiously optimistic they’ll find one for their sleep offerings, too.